"People like to think of modern human biology, and especially mental biology, as being the result of selections that took place 100,000 years ago," said University of Chicago geneticist Bruce Lahn. "But our research shows that humans are still under selection, not just for things like disease resistance but for cognitive abilities." Lahn recently published the results of a study demonstrating that two key genes connected to brain size are currently under rapid selection in populations throughout the globe. "The jury is still out on what this means because we aren’t entirely sure what these genes do," said Lahn. "It’s possible they just control size and shape of the brain, rather than cognition. But the data is pretty compelling that the brain is evolving." Some radical thinkers suggest human evolution needs to move even faster, with a little help from science.
From the BBC: “Some of the world’s leading Islamic feminists have been gathered in Barcelona for the third International Congress on Islamic Feminism, to discuss the issues women face in the Muslim world. Some of the women taking part in the conference explained the problems in their home countries, and where they hoped to make progress.”
The Final Cut: Omitting the Samaritan Woman’s Story Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
Some interesting reactions to the Vashti McKenzie program this past weekend, both positive and negative. This interesting e-mail in particular was mentioned during our Monday morning staff meeting, coming from Kathryn in Davis, California. She mentions a segment around 01:12:00 in the full interview that we cut out of the final production. The segment is about 6 minutes long, and survived through a couple of rounds of edits before it was ultimately cut out.
I am a big fan of this show and admire your talent, Krista. The editing on this particular show disturbed me, however. By her own account, and yours, the essence of Vashti McKenzie is discovered in the the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s an incredibly profound teaching in the same way that Native American stories are so deeply wise and transformational. (One can understand how Christianity of the mainstream stumbled so badly by failing to understand the meaning of this core teaching. Rev. McKenzie finally gets it right.) And yet, it didn’t make the final cut.
When I look at what did make the cut — the emphasis on the Jeremiah Wright exegesis — and the timing of this interview, it tells me that you used Speaking of Faith and Vashti McKenzie to make an appeal to nervous undecided and conservative voters to support Barack Obama, much like the just released movie about George “W” Bush did.
This is your show, you can do that, and I hope it works. That said, the story of the Samaritan woman holds so much more meaning and value for viewers here and around the world than whether or not undecided voters now might feel a little better about Barack Obama’s Christianity. Rev. McKenzie’s teaching goes both to her core and the central mission of your show. Your rough cut managed to miss the mark on both counts.
There are a couple of things there. The first thing is the apparent support for a candidate. Depending on what we’re covering on a particular week, we often hear from listeners who think we’re supporting this or that political ideology. Just as an example with this program, some listeners suggested that even mentioning Jeremiah Wright at this stage meant we were trying to derail Sen. Obama’s bid. It seems to go with the territory no matter how much editorial rigor we subject a program to, and that’s fine, we’re happy to talk about our process.
But as with most Speaking of Faith programs, we try to contribute something to the conversation in the larger American community. Talking about race in the context of this presidential election might seem cynical, but I don’t know if there’s ever a wrong time to talk about racism.
Maybe the story of the Samaritan woman contributes to that larger conversation in a more enduring way than anything that can be said about the Wright controversy. Rather than reflecting an ulterior motive, this is where the desire to be newsworthy comes in. Krista is talking to someone who is a prominent leader in the African-American community, and who had close ties to Jeremiah Wright. There is a journalistic responsibility to address it openly. To be honest, in the full interview, I detected some reluctance in Bishop McKenzie’s voice as far as talking about the Wright controversy. There is more discussion of the controversy throughout the interview, but we edited a lot of that out because the segment we had in the final program addressed the issue without belaboring it. And there was some thematic redundancy between the story of the Samaritan woman and other parts of the interview. With our eyes on the clock, we make room for some things at the expense of others.
The show itself was meant to act as part of a reflection on how race and gender have been used in this campaign. And when we decide to re-broadcast this show at some future point, it’s highly possible that we swap out the Wright discussion — which will no longer be timely — with the story of the Samaritan woman.
For now, we’re still trying to draw something positive out of the uglier aspects of the campaigns. Bishop McKenzie talks about defining moments. In our public life, we often hear about missed opportunities to turn crises into teachable moments — “transformational” is a word Kathryn uses above. I don’t know, what do you think? Samaritan woman, or Jeremiah Wright reaction? Timely or timeless?
Earlier this week, I wrote about a photograph of a Lubavitch assembly. In response to a comment in our Flickr community, I was doing some research and happened upon a couple of lists about the top 50 most influential rabbis and the top 25 rabbis from the pulpit. Sharon Brous, the Conservative rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, from our Days of Awe program was included in both. Not only is she young and vibrant, she’s also one of the few women on these lists. She’s worth paying attention to in the years to come.
Also, Ari (the aforementioned commenter) encouraged us to speak with some Orthodox Jewish voices for future programs. Perhaps Rabbi Schneerson would be a good biographical portrait to pursue. Any other suggestions? (Note, these don’t have to be rabbis.)
OK. I’ll admit it. I’m a lurker in the Jewish blogging community — my favorite being Rachel Barenblat’s smart and always provocative Velveteen Rabbi. In a recent post, she wrote about a friend, Seth Brown, who has translated the Torah into rhyming verse and is releasing one chapter a week on his blog From God to Verse.
For the past five years, writing the annotated guide ("program particulars") meant to complement each week’s broadcast has been a labor of love. I’m not theologically trained, so I wanted to better understand passing references made by Krista and her guests — particularly when it came to quoting sacred texts. The Web is handy, but, it lacks the depth of scriptural translations little known outside seminaries and divinity schools.
Occupants of my desk as I write. (photo: Trent Gilliss)
Aiding my research, Krista and Kate have kindly directed me to translations I wasn’t aware of — everything from M.D. Herter Norton’s rendition of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to A.M. Silbermann’s translation of the Pentateuch with Rashi’s Commentary, from JPS’ Tanakh to Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses. Here, I discovered a world of poetic interpretation that surpassed the more literal translations I was familiar with. These translations seem to capture the spirit and cadence of the original language that might evade other versions.
Barenblat cited two phrases from Brown’s work that struck my ear instantly: “when God was creating” and “all wild and waste” from the first chapter of Genesis. The sensibility of the Tanakh and Fox’s translation are distinct. And sure enough, these were two of the four texts that Brown referenced.
The latter phrase is distinctly Fox, “when the earth was wild and waste.” The former stems from a refreshing Jewish perspective. The past is present; God not only created the universe but continues to create today. It’s an ongoing cyclical process:
First, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
And from Fox’s The Five Books of Moses:
At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,
And now from the Tanakh:
When God began to create heaven and earth—
Although I’ve handed off writing particulars to our younger, more intellectual producers, I still get excited (yes, this job has ruined my street cred with my friends) when I see endeavors like Seth Brown’s. Once you traipse down this path of discovery, you’ll be forever changed.
USA Today has produced a nifty interactive feature in which they’ve taken data from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and represented it graphically. The “topography of faith” section is a simple map that provides a breakdown of religious and denomination affiliations by state. I scrolled over my home state of North Dakota (yes, I’m a tad bitter that they statistically lumped it together with South Dakota as if it were a territory…) and was surprised to see the large percentage of Evangelical Protestants. And, as you canvas the states, take notice of the gold “unaffiliated” bar.
The section breaking down religious beliefs gives you an integrated comparison of how different faith traditions and denominations within American Christianity responded to specific questions. Tip: use the sort by button.
Some of my interpretive observations about the subtleties of responses:
People are optimistic, or, if you prefer, more willing to believe they’ll be rewarded for their good deeds rather than being punished for their bad acts. More than 74% of the total population believed in a heaven where good people living good lives are rewarded; but 58% of the total population subscribed to the idea of hell where bad, unrepentant people are eternally punished.
Only a majority of Jehovah’s Witnesses (80%) and Mormons (57%) believe their religion is the one true path to eternal life.
One group, the Buddhists, had a simple majority who believed that people should adjust their beliefs and practices in light of new circumstances.
Almost all groups (sans the unaffiliated) pray regularly, with more than three-quarters of Evangelicals, Black Protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses praying every day.
Less than half of Hindus, Black Protestants, Muslims, Evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept homosexuality.
Buddhists were the only group who didn’t have a majority believing there are absolute standards for right and wrong.
As part of her trip to Los Angeles to participate in the 2008 Women’s Conference and lead a conversation of L.A. faith leaders at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Krista was a guest on Tuesday’s Patt Morrison program on KPCC (a regional public affairs program for Southern California Public Radio). Here Krista is the interviewee, responding to questions from Patt Morrison and her audience about such topics as the role of religion in government and society, the politics/religion dynamic in this year’s presidential election, atheists and humanists in the interfaith spectrum, how we think about fundamentalism today, and listening and hearing as important virtues in our religious dialogue. Listen to their 25-minute conversation.
Selecting Audio for "African American. Woman. Leader."
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
I’d like to talk about some of the journalistic, editorial, and aesthetic considerations that go into using audio clips in Speaking of Faith. We’re not a documentary program, so we use clips sparingly to keep the focus on the conversation. When we do use these elements, there are a number of reasons:
To illustrate or cap off a theme that was just discussed by Krista and her guest;
To elaborate on something that was implied in a conversational moment (e.g., a passage in a book written by the guest)
To cover something that was cut from the interview (e.g., part of a question or answer, the explanation of a concept, a reference to some historical event, etc.);
To break up a block of interview that goes on too long; or
To add something worthwhile to an interview that’s been cut relatively short.
We had a couple of needs to satisfy in this program with Vashti McKenzie, and created room for two audio clips. One, we decided, had to be of Bishop McKenzie preaching.
I have to admit that I was breathless after watching her Easter sermon at Trinity. There’s this hypnotic build-up to a series of emotional crescendoes. She’s like an orchestral conductor at work. The most powerful, moving, and provocative parts of her sermon are, inevitably, the ones where she reaches those crescendoes. You can’t take your eyes off her. She’s forceful when she’s up there. And it’s tempting to use a clip of that moment in her sermon to illustrate her style of preaching.
The problem is that to go from an intimate interview with Krista to the middle of a highly emotional sermon is jarring to the ear. Worse still, there’s the danger of taking powerful preaching out of its context, turning it into a sound bite, sensationalizing it, pushing people away from it, and hurting the people who are closest to it. That’s exactly what happened earlier this year with the sermons of Jeremiah Wright. It’s not something we want to contribute to.
Because of time constraints, we are looking for a quick snapshot, but a snapshot that tells a story. I use the word “snapshot” deliberately because of its ties to our journalistic cousin: photojournalism. Is it possible to tell the story of a complex issue in one photograph? Is it possible to capture the essence of a human being in one portrait? Maybe, maybe not. But to stretch the analogy further, think of a great photograph accompanying a great article — sometimes it tells its own story. Sometimes a photo or an image layers itself onto the richness of the text, helping to give it concrete shape.
In various sermons we considered excerpting from, there were positives and negatives. In one, she’s putting out this intense call to a young generation to rise up and be heard, yet ironically her own voice is drowned out by an unfortunate echo, especially during moments of high intensity. Her Easter sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ is powerful, but does it work as well with an outside audience as it does to members of the church? Are there stories that are short enough and self-contained enough to illustrate her socially conscious preaching and her pulpit personality?
We had trouble isolating something like that from that Easter sermon. And really, because it touches upon the Jeremiah Wright controversy (something we delve into in the second half of the program), we couldn’t use it at the end of the first half, where we had some time for a clip.
We needed to cap off the idea of her social activism, and the reference to “merry-go-round agendas” in her National Cathedral sermon seemed like a great fit. Plus, she talks about Moses, who was so important in abolitionist theology. She’s also strong and forceful, and the audio quality is good.
It’s not an exact science, and we do have a lot of back and forth for elements like these, listening to a clip by itself, listening to it with the preceding segment, talking it over, asking ourselves what works and what doesn’t, and going forward until we’re all satisfied that the clip has added something to the interview rather than detract from the Krista Tippett conversation that we all enjoy.
“They are the ones who whispered it on the playground when nobody was looking. If we lose that language, we lose who we are.”—
— Ryan Wilson, referring to tribal elders who were listening to young girls singing in Arapaho.
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Wilson, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and a board member of the National Indian Education Association, is working with the Northern Arapaho tribe to establish Hinono’ Eitiino’ Oowu’, an Arapaho language immersion school on the Wind River Reservation in northwest Wyoming. Wilson’s words remind me of something David Treuer said to Krista about his tribe’s effort to preserve the Ojibwe language:
"What I really love about language revitalization, what is so key to it, is that it’s always been ours and it’s a chance to define ourselves on and in our own terms and in ways that have nothing to do with what’s been taken. We can define ourselves by virtue of what we’ve saved."
A few times when I was in elementary school, my mom took me out of school to go to the annual pro-life march at the Minnesota state capitol. I remember waiting for a shuttle from Colonial Square in Wayzata, standing in Rexall Drug’s entrance next to a woman with a sign that read, “Real Feminists are Pro-Life.” At that age, I didn’t know what a feminist was and remember asking my mom, but I don’t think her answer made it any clearer for me. Isn’t everybody for women’s rights?
One particular year we were at the capitol and I remember signs that had pictures of aborted fetuses pasted to foamcore; another striking display was a grim reaper effigy being toted around by a cross made of 2x4s, which the strong winds made even more terrifying. My memory tells me that each time it was a gray, overcast January day, with exhaust-covered snow heaped upon the banks of the streets. I don’t know what I was thinking of it at the time, but my recollection is that we were doing what was needed.
I remember screenings of The Silent Scream were offered in my church’s basement. My parents never let me watch it. I guess I was too young to witness that strong a message. But I went to the capitol each year because it was what my mom asked of me. I would do it for her then, and I would like to say I would support her today, a little over a year since she passed away, but I cannot be sure.
My mom always called me her “Jesus-baby,” a moniker my siblings still give me grief about (and perhaps now my colleagues), and an affection my mom expressed to me as late as her death bed. I’m not sure I know the entire story behind this nickname, but I do know that mom quit smoking and drinking two years before I was born and also had a born-again experience during the time when charismatic Christianity was firing up Roman Catholic parishes in the early 70’s. I also know that her doctor tried to persuade her to have a hysterectomy around this time — my mother had had 5 children already. I don’t know how much of this, or all of it, is what shaped my mom’s views on abortion, but they do represent some of the circumstances.
I am very conflicted on where I stand on abortion. I can’t say I would abide by the pro-life position if my wife and I found ourselves in a place which would be too challenging for us at some stage in our lives. I do, however, wish that there were fewer abortions, as I think it is a choice and commitment of such anguish for a woman that no one ever wants to undertake, if possible.
And so this contentious struggle continues, without much progress. Maybe I have softened due to the inevitability of maturing, though doubtful. But I can point to something Rod Dreher said on a recent SOF program that was revealing to me.
"If I were pro-choice, I would feel very strongly about it and I would find it very difficult to compromise."
What’s there to do when you can’t compromise and are unwilling to see the opposite perspective? When I say that I am passionate about my beliefs, I guess I am speaking theoretically. My problem is that I see both perspectives as valid, a convenient strategy my dad and I argue about that he calls situational ethics. He feels that there are absolutes in one’s faith and you need to abide by those, no matter the scenario. I feel as though no decision is free from the circumstances, and it is the very apt approach to regarding hindsight or looking back on previous decisions that allow us to progress.
Perhaps that’s what I am, pro-gress. But I am sure we all are.
[Editor’s note: Out of the hundreds of responses we’ve received about abortion, many people are wrestling with same personal and societal conundrums of legalization. I encourage you to visit our map and read some, and submit you’re own perspectives.]
An interesting article over in the New York Times Magazine this past weekend looks at the issue of ethical kashrut, expanding the definition of kosher to bring in 21st-century food ethics. I’m absolutely fascinated by this from the standpoint of both kosher and halal. In the article, the writer asks questions about “the very meaning of kosher.”
Is it simply about cutting an animal’s neck and butchering it in a specific way? Or is the ritual also meant to minimize an animal’s pain or to bring sanctity to its death? Does it matter how the animal was treated when it was alive? How about the workers who processed it? Is reverence for life possible in a factory-farming setting?
I’ve had the same questions with halal-designated meat.
This presidential election feels like it’s moving at gastropod’s pace. As subtle as a leviathan, this large body exerts an irresistable gravitational force on everything around it. We keep talking about it here in the office, but we’re also wondering how much politics we can all handle, and trying to balance relevance against saturation.
We’re trying to give voice to some interesting people during this election season, but next week, we’ll back off the political stuff and re-air our show on autism. Following that, a show on leadership, religion, gender, and race with the dynamic preacher Vashti McKenzie. It’s about her but also very much about the issue of biography in this election cycle.
Then comes the weekend prior to the election. What to do…
We will be airing a repeat that week, and the question came up: relevance or saturation? Can we provide a non-political alternative, or should we offer something useful for the occasion? We decided that we couldn’t well ignore the reality of the situation — gravitational pull.
So we went back and forth on what show we wanted to repeat that weekend. An initial thought was our program with three prominent Evangelical Christians. Pro: a look at how this influential community, if they vote as a bloc as in past elections, might sway the election. Con: an abundance of coverage of this issue lately.
Then came the thought of airing our classic program, A History of Doubt. Pro: remaining skeptical in the face of dogmas (and partisanship?). Con: it’s not a political show, so let’s not force it to be.
The week after the election, we’ll broadcast our new program on the science of revenge and forgiveness (and yes, we do talk about some politics in that, too). And the next couple of weeks/months will see some serious, newsy topics: Shia Islam in the context of Iran and geopolitics; potentially the economy, finance, and what we do with all this depressing information; and a potential two-parter on the ethics of international aid and development.
Lots of serious shows coming up looking at serious issues. It’s a serious season, I guess.
Two weeks ag I began working with Speaking of Faith as a production intern, and I am excited to be both at SOF and in Minnesota. I grew up here in St. Paul, but have lived elsewhere for the past several years, most recently studying at the London School of Economics in the UK. Returning to Minnesota and starting at Speaking of Faith are both unexpected gifts that have cropped up rather suddenly in my life. Just a few months ago, I had planned on staying in London and trying to make my way in the UK. I came back to St. Paul to finish my thesis, and at the last minute decided to stay.
Returning home isn’t always easy. In some ways, it is harder than leaving. Things shift gradually while we are away, and the differences, which aren’t always apparent to the eye, are felt deep in our gut. No matter where we are, we constantly readjust ourselves to subtle changes in the world around us. Returning home forces one to confront the many changes that have occurred in our absence all at once. As I start at SOF, I am excited to be on a team of individuals who think deeply about the ways in which the world changes and does not change, and the subtle differences in each of our interpretations of this. The themes that I pick up in the show — faith, difference, belonging, and perception — have run as undercurrents in my life abroad, and are resurfacing again as I begin to sort through my past and my present.
I will be with Speaking of Faith for the next six months. Unlike many media internships, I am lucky in that I will be learning not only about the production of a weekly show, but also about the power of a simple conversation to spur deep questioning, thought, and growth. I am tremendously excited to begin, and I look forward to the next several months.
"Younger Americans, including younger Americans of faith, are not the culture war generation. On issues from gay and lesbian rights to the role of government at home and around the world, young Catholics, mainline protestants and evangelicals are bridging the divides that entrenched their elders and ushering in an era of consensus in which the common good trumps the clash of ideologies"
Mitch and I are currently attending a Web consultation in Grand Rapids, Michigan at Calvin College. Here, the Lilly Endowment convenes religion grantees to talk about advancing online tools and presence. It’s a diverse group of people from theological libraries, seminaries, PBS, educational funding, universities, etc. For a good share of the attendees, there’s a lot of reticence when we start talking about Web 2.0 and the semantic Web in which elevating the voice and perspectives of their readers/viewers/listeners is of key importance. For hierarchical organizations, this can be quite scary.
But, we’ve met a passionate, extremely likable fellow, Jeremy Hinsdale (currently employed with NOW on PBS), who is trying to move the larger discussion about religion and religious issues forward through this spankin’ new blog, deilogos. It’s a community blog in which not only can you comment, but you can create an account and be a contributing poster about faith issues.
We here operate on trust first and the better nature of us all, assuming that good things will happen; if something goes wrong, we address it then. That way we can try things. Jeremy’s doing this. We admire the ambition to create better dialogue and maybe you’ll find another community you can help build from the ground up. Try it and let us know what you think.
Well, Ramadan is officially over and I’ve spent the past few days at various parties celebrating by eating, eating, and, oh yeah, eating. What ends up happening on Eid (after the morning communal prayer at the mosque) is usually this circuit of house visits, going from family to family, eating, popping in and out, eating, seeing people, chatting, eating, then heading off to another house party. At each new house, I’m just too polite to say, “I understand you’ve been slaving over a hot stove all day, but I just came from two other parties. I can’t eat anymore. Touch my belly. Touch it!”
Yesterday was thankfully free of parties, as is tonight, but apparently my cousin and his family (and I) are booked for two Saturday parties, the first at 11:00 am. It’s going to be a long day. To what could I compare all this? Thanksgiving—both the word and the holiday. Eid is basically several days of eating and socializing and, hopefully, feeling happy to be alive.
My colleague Rob McGinley Myers, who sits next to me, asked me if the experience of fasting changes the way I look at food. I admit that it doesn’t turn me into a saint in my everyday life, but it absolutely affects how I think about politics. I can choose to stop starving. A lot of people can’t.
Anyway, a hearty Eid mubarak to those who are (still?) celebrating.
In working on our two new shows about faith — the Left and the Right — in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, we were struck by the fact that the 2008 Democratic National Convention was the first modern DNC that began each day with an invocation and ended each night with a benediction. Our guest Amy Sullivan said, “As I was watching it, what I felt was less kind of a sense that I was witnessing something new and more a disbelief that this hadn’t existed before.” By contrast, Republican conventions have long included invocations and benedictions.
The final benediction of the DNC was delivered by Joel Hunter, a pro-life Evangelical and a registered Republican who serves as the senior pastor to a 12,000-member congregation in Florida. The final benediction at the Republican National Convention was delivered by Dan Yeary, a Southern Baptist pastor of North Phoenix Baptist Church, where John McCain’s wife is a member.
Let us know what you think of these two prayers. Does this religious language ennoble the sometimes less than noble sentiments of these political gatherings? Or do you agree with one of our previous guests, Steve Waldman, that injecting religion into politics can actually hurt religion, by sullying it with the baggage that political figures carry?
On Thursday night before the debate, I wrote something that meant a great deal to me. It was about a trip I made to Ole Miss in August and the incredible symbolism of that the debate on that campus, a cultural triumph it signified far larger than who won or lost.
Our Business of Doing Good show of a few months back generated some passionate response from all of you. One thing Jonathan Greenblatt mentioned during that program was his work with the X Prize Foundation to develop a “poverty X Prize.”
Google’s up to something similar: Project 10^100. Send in your ideas about how you’d change the world, by October 20th. Google’s going to front $10 million to help these world-changing projects get off the ground. The categories: Community, Opportunity, Energy, Environment, Health, Education, Shelter, and Everything Else. So what’s your project? Tell them (and, hey, tell us, too).
I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications
facilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.
And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.
But there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”
I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.
And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.
Awe-some Music Inspired by the Jewish High Holy Days
Colleen Scheck, Producer
If you’ve never listened to the SOF Playlist that accompanies each program, I highly recommend checking out the list for this week’s show exploring the meaning and sounds of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, "Days of Awe." You can hear full-length tracks of each song played in the program.
As we were preparing this program for rebroadcast, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the music Mitch compiled, which is inspired by this sacred time. I looked a little more closely into the background of some of the songs, discovering some interesting history and modern context. Here are a few examples:
"On Rosh Hashanah" Bassist David Chevan’s 10-minute rendition of “On Rosh Hashanah” is a contemporary jazz composition that fuses Jewish and non-Jewish musical influences. Chevan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, grew up in a Conservative-Egalitarian synagogue where he led services from the age of 10. He’s melded sacred music with jazz for years, and he currently performs with an ensemble called The Afro-Semitic Experience. Their compositions blend a wide range of music influenced by both Jewish and African-American traditions, from 18th-century cantorial works to the music of Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson. In this 2002 NPR profile of Chevan and Afro-Semitic pianist Warren Byrd, they describe how the point of their collaboration is to address differences and commalities among faiths and races in America.
"On Rosh Hashanah" is from Chevan’s 2003 album, The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. A review of the album called it a “groundbreaking work if only because it is the first time that a jazz musician (or any instrumental musician) has ever made a recording solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days.” ”On Rosh Hashanah” features Chevan, The Afro-Semitic Experience, and trumpeter Frank London. Like many of the works on the album, it’s based on a 1907 recording by the famous early 20th-century cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt.
"Rivers of Babylon" Rabbi Sharon Brous sent us this version of Psalm 137 (expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem) as one example of “the vibe of services at IKAR.” Originally recorded for an IKAR Shabbat CD, she says it is also used for High Holy Days, and she calls it “one of the most soulful compositions” she’s ever heard. It’s based on the 1972 version written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians — a 1960’s Jamaican rock-steady reggae trio. It first appeared in the sound track to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come — a film based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, a Jamaican criminal who achieved fame in the 1940s. Many other musicians have covered it, including Boney M, Sinead O’Connor, the Neville Brothers, and Sublime.
As in her conversation with Krista, the influence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Brous surfaces again in this quote from IKAR’s Web site: “Heschel taught that music is the only language that is compatible with the wonder and mystery of being.”
The lead female voice on “Rivers of Babylon” is Jessica Meyer, a former IKAR member who taught prayer music to children and sang at services. A former actress (she was in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist), Meyer gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career to become a cantor. She recounts what drew her to IKAR:
"I was a Hebrew School dropout. Disgusted with the Judaism ‘Lite’ espoused by the Conservative synagogue of my childhood, I went in search of a spiritually vibrant, politically engaged Jewish community committed to a culture of Jewish learning and prayer. I did not find it until I came to an IKAR service…
The music of prayer at IKAR is electrifying. The melodies range from Ashkenazi old school to Carlebach, to one inspired by a Sufi chant! The people who lead services are not performing, they’re praying. (It is amazing how much closer people can come to a prayer when they have the freedom to explore for themselves – when there isn’t a someone performing it for them.)
It took me many years, and three continents to find Ikar. It is a blessing to be a part of this community.”
Check out the “Days of Awe" play list for other songs by Leonard Cohen, the BBC Symphony, and Barbara Streisand. Which ones resonate with you?
This story in the UK’s The Guardian is about a 27-year-old fellow in London who is using the concept of flash mobs to feed homeless people during Ramadan. I’m going to have to look further into this, because it sounds like he could be a voice for next year’s potential Ramadan show.
I wanted to share a tremendously informative piece of writing that came into my inbox yesterday — an essay by Omer M. Mozaffar about the passing of Warith Deen (often referred to as W.Deen) Mohammed titled "American Islam Enters its Next Phase." Mohammed was a gentle but towering figure in the history of Islam in the U.S., yet remains little known in the culture at large.
Fully one-third of U.S. Muslims are African-American, with a noble, fascinating history and th
eological trajectory all their own. We first waded into these waters when we did an early post-9/11 program on "Progressive Islam in America." (If you listen you will find that it sounds quite different from the programming we do now, though it remains kindred in spirit and intent.) One of the voices in that show is the supersmart fast-talking Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, a third-generation African-American Muslim. I will never forget discovering her, and discovering all I learned about African-American Islam as I prepared to speak with her.
I’ll boil my most surprising learning down to this: although Louis Farrakhan is still to this day known best and heeded in U.S. culture as the face and voice of African-American Islam, he has long spoken for only a sliver of this movement (tens of thousands as opposed to millions). The vast majority of the African-American Islamic community went through a profound mini-reformation, which W.Deen Mohammed led and exemplified and which mirrored the conversion Malcolm X underwent near the time of his death — away from the more militant, racially separatist roots of Farrakhan and Elija Muhammad (W.Deen’s father) and towards a universalist, orthodox Sunni Islam. To put a finer point on this: Farrakhan speaks for tens of thousands; but the gentle Mohammed embodied a religiosity of millions who, as Mozaffer says, will now move into their next phase as a community formed by his example.